Clifton Hunter High School was intended to be a monument to Cayman Islands education. Instead, through mismanagement, poor planning and an absence of accounting, the sprawling campus in Frank Sound has become a memorial to governmental waste.
As if the government high schools project — which, lest we forget, resulted in only one school out of three originally promised — needed another black mark on its permanent record, the auditor general’s office offered up two more last week.
First, Acting Auditor General Garnet Harrison confirmed that Clifton Hunter — built at a cost of $110.1 million — has an estimated book value of $90 million … or maybe less. Yes, our officials spent $110 million on an asset that’s only worth $90 million. When we speak of the concept of achieving “value for money,” Clifton Hunter is a choice counter-example.
Past reports, legislative hearings and news stories have examined who may bear responsibility for the expensive and expansive debacle, and why.
(The short answer: Almost everybody involved in the project, starting from the top, for various reasons that still haven’t been entirely clarified.)
An article that appeared on the front page of Friday’s Compass newspaper delved, rather, into the “whats” of the waste … as in, “What did officials spend all those tens of millions of dollars on?” and “What did taxpayers get in return for our money?”
First, the construction of Clifton Hunter soared some $41.4 million higher than what government had planned to spend on the school. That is not a misplaced decimal point. The government intended to spend less than $69 million on the high school, and instead ended up spending more than $110 million. That equates to cost overruns of greater than 60 percent. That’s quite an “oops!” factor.
Of that $41.4 million in extraordinary spending, auditors were able to break down $30.3 million in expenditures, including:
- $3.7 million extra for architectural design
- $1.7 million more for ministry-ordered changes to that design
- $3.1 million for a new project manager contract
- $5.1 million for a new construction manager contract
- $4 million in legal and arbitration costs to settle “numerous” contractor disputes
- $4.5 million for another settlement with the project’s primary mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractor
- $6 million to remediate faulty construction work
- $2.2 million to pay two contractors for time extensions needed to complete their work,
So that’s what we paid for. What did we get in return? According to our news story, “Mr. Harrison said none of these expenses would have added significant value to the schools project.”
What’s even worse than Clifton Hunter’s detrimental impact to the public treasury is Clifton Hunter’s apparent adverse impact on students’ learning.
A team of inspectors concluded that the school’s open-plan classroom layout posed an “urgent problem” and “adversely affects students’ concentration.”
In response, the consultants behind the original layout of the school — which they, for the record, describe as “agile multifaceted spaces” instead of “open plan” — defended their design, blaming the school’s failures on political changes and saying Clifton Hunter could still succeed “within the context of a comprehensive transformation of the entire educational system in the Cayman Islands.”
That, we believe, is the most important point. Ultimately, education is about people — primarily teachers and students — not structures. That is where investments should be concentrated, on nurturing the active pedagogical process that takes place every day, not on the trappings that surround it. On learning, not “learning spaces.”
After all, education and knowledge are for the benefit of the living — pyramids and other monuments are built for the dead.